The Issue at Hand

The Issue at Hand

Appendix: Theravada – The Way of Liberation

from Issue at Hand by Gil Fronsdal

“Theravada” – literally, The Teachings of the Elders – is an ancient Buddhist tradition that has nurtured practices and teachings of wisdom, love and liberation for over two thousand years. Liberation, the pivotal point around which the tradition revolves, is a deep seeing into and participation in the reality of “things as they are:” the world we live in when seen without the filters of greed, hatred and delusion.

With the ever-present, timeless immediacy of “things as they are” as a central reference point, the Theravada school is a fluid and varied tradition evolving in response to the particular personal, historical, and cultural circumstances of those who participate in it. Today there are over one hundred million Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Currently, the three most influential Theravada countries are Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka, and it is from these countries that the tradition has come to the West.

Theravada Buddhism in North America

Since the 1960s, the Theravada tradition has slowly but surely found a home in North America. The two major turning points for its establishment here were the founding in 1966 of the first American Buddhist vihara, or monastic temple, by the Sri Lankan Buddhist community in Washington D.C., and ten years later the establishment of the Vipassana meditation center in Barre, Massachusetts known as the Insight Meditation Society(IMS). These two centers represent two divergent and distinct forms that Theravada Buddhism has taken in North America, namely the monastic-centered traditions and temples of the Southeast Asian immigrant groups on the one hand, and on the other the lay-centered Vipassana movement made up mostly of Americans of European descent. The former tend to be fairly conservative, replicating in America the various forms of Buddhism found in their native countries. The latter take a more liberal and experimental approach in finding ways Theravada Buddhism can be adapted to its lay- based American setting.

The newest form of Theravada Buddhism in the United States fits into neither of these categories. It is represented by monastic centers run and supported predominantly by Euro-Americans. An example is Abhayagiri Monastery, founded by the English monk Ajahn Amaro in 1996 in Redwood Valley, California. In addition, two other monastic centers-Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, California, and the Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia-are making monastic practice available to Westerners while remaining firmly connected to their traditional Asian communities. Within these centers we could well be seeing the beginnings of an American version of Theravada monasticism.

Considered an ideal lifestyle for study, practice, service, and the purification of the heart, monasticism has long been a cornerstone of the Theravada tradition. However, in the twentieth century and especially in the modern West, the full range of Theravada meditation practices has been made available to the laity in an unprecedented manner. This being the case, monasticism is no longer seen as the sole carrier of the tradition, although it remains an anchor and a force of preservation.

While it is too early to tell what American Theravada Buddhism will eventually look like, it will probably exhibit at least as much diversity as it does in its Southeast Asian home- land. Perhaps it will even stretch the boundaries of what has traditionally defined it.

Basic Teachings

The Buddha encouraged people not to believe blindly but to “come and see” for themselves. Consequently, his teachings emphasize practice rather than belief or doctrine. In this spirit, many Theravadan practices are awareness practices, simple in themselves but powerful in their sustained application. In addition, the tradition also teaches practices to strengthen generosity, service, ethics, loving-kindness, compassion and right livelihood. These practices nurture the growth of an awakened and liberated heart, and help us to live wisely and compassionately.

The Theravada tradition traces its practices and teachings back to the historical Buddha. While the Buddha has been the object of great veneration, the tradition has, down through the centuries, maintained that the Buddha was human, someone who pointed out the path of practice that others may follow. The Theravada school preserves much of its collection of the Buddha’s teaching in a large body of scriptures, or Suttas, written in Pali, the Theravada equivalent of Church Latin. These remarkable texts contain highly revered and thorough descriptions of practices, ethics, psychology, and teachings on the spiritual life. They also contain a strong warning not to give up one’s own judgment in favor of the tradition and its texts, as well as a warning about simply following one’s own judgment without listening to others. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha says that in deciding the truth or falsity of spiritual teachings,

Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, “The ascetic is our teacher.”

But when you know for yourselves, “These things are unwholesome, these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering,” then you should abandon them. But when you know for yourselves, “These things are wholesome, these things are blameless these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should engage in them.

A key reason for such a pragmatic criterion for determining spiritual truth or falsehood is that the Buddha was not particularly interested in establishing correct metaphysical views. He was more concerned with pointing out how to move from suffering to freedom from suffering, from suffering to liberation. Thus, the central doctrine of the Theravada tradition is found in the “Four Noble Truths.” Here the word “Truths” refers to that which is spiritually or therapeutically true and helpful. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering occurs
  2. The cause of suffering is craving
  3. The possibility of ending suffering exists
  4. The cessation of suffering is attained through the Noble Eightfold Path

Suffering (dukkha in Pali) here does not refer to physical and empathetic pain, conditions that we inevitably experience. Rather, it refers to the dissatisfaction and tension we add to our lives through clinging. The first and second Noble truths are a call to recognize clearly both our suffering and the many variations of grasping and aversion that make up the clinging underlying such suffering. One reason the Theravada tradition stresses awareness practices is to help us with this recognition. The third and fourth Noble truths point to the possibility of ending such clinging-derived suffering, and of living with a liberated heart.

The experience of being free of clinging-derived suffering is known as nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit) and is popularly called enlightenment or awakening in English. While the Theravada tradition sometimes describes nibbana as a form of great happiness or peace, more often it has been defined simply as the complete absence of clinging or craving. The primary reason for this negative definition is that nibbana is so radically different from what can be described through language that it is best not to try. Furthermore, the tradition discourages attachments to any particular ideas of enlightenment as well as to pointless philosophical or metaphysical speculation. Indeed, part of the brilliance of the Four Noble Truths is that they offer a guide to the spiritual life without the need to adhere to any dogmatic beliefs.

The Eightfold Path

The fourth Noble Truth describes the set of steps we can take to let go of clinging: the Noble Eightfold Path, namely,

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

These eight aspects to the path are often organized into three categories: wisdom, ethics and meditation (pañña, sila, and samadhi).

Wisdom encompasses Right Understanding and Right Intention. It begins with knowing ourselves well enough so that our motivation to practice arises from understanding how the Four Noble Truths relate to our personal situations.

Ethics encompasses Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. Theravada Buddhism teaches that we cannot cultivate an open, trusting and non-clinging heart if our behavior is motivated by greed, hatred or delusion. A powerful way to develop and strengthen an awakened heart is to sincerely align our actions with the values of generosity, kindness, compassion, and honesty.

And finally, awareness training encompasses Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. With an effort that is neither tense nor complacent, we cultivate clarity and stability of awareness so that we can see deeply into life. This, in turn, helps facilitate the cessation of clinging.

A Gradual Training

The suttas frequently show the Buddha describing a gradual training to cultivate spiritual development (e.g., Samannaphala Sutta in the Digha Nikaya, and Ganakamoggallana Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya.) This training moves progressively from the cultivation of generosity, to ethics, to mindfulness practices, to concentration, to insight, and finally to liberation. The gradual training is an expansion of the three categories of the eight-fold path, with generosity and ethics included in sila, meditation practices in samadhi, and insight and liberation in pañña. While this gradual training is often presented in a linear fashion, it can also be seen in a non-linear manner as a helpful description of important elements of the spiritual path that different people develop at different times. Westerners who undertake Theravada practice often skip some of the early stages in the progression. Instead they initially focus on awareness practices, particularly mindfulness. Although there may be good reasons for this in the West, by starting with mindfulness we may be bypassing the cultivation of healthy psychological qualities of mind and heart that support its foundation. In addition, by starting with mindfulness practice, we may overlook the fact that both the awakening and awakened heart can find its expression in service to others.


Traditional Theravada training begins with sila and the cultivation of generosity (dana). In its highest form, the practice of dana is neither motivated from moralistic ideas of right and wrong, nor from possible future rewards. Instead, the intention of this practice is to strengthen our ability to be sensitive and appropriately generous in all situations.

As generosity develops, it becomes a strength of inner openness that supports the more challenging practices of mindfulness. As the practice of generosity reveals our clinging and attachments, it helps us to appreciate how the Four Noble Truths apply to our own lives. Through generosity we connect with others, weakening any tendency toward self-centeredness or self-obsession in our spiritual lives.


From here, the gradual training expands sila to include ethics, sometimes described as the cultivation of contentment, since ethical transgressions often arise out of discontentment. For a layperson, ethical training means learning to live by the five precepts:

  1. To refrain from killing any living being
  2. To refrain from stealing or taking what is not given
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct
  4. To refrain from speaking what is not true
  5. To refrain from using alcohol or drugs that cause us to be careless or heedless

The precepts are not meant as moralistic commandments, but rather as guidelines for cultivation. They are taught because they strengthen qualities of restraint, contentment, honesty, clarity and respect for life. They also create a healthy relatedness to other people and to other forms of life. We can more easily progress along the path of non-clinging when our relationships are in order.

The Theravada tradition advocates the cultivation of four warm-hearted attitudes known as the divine abidings (brahmaviharas): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Loving-kindness is a selfless friendliness or love that desires the good and happiness for oneself and others. Compassion and sympathetic joy-complemantary expressions of lovingkindness-involve sharing in, but in no way clinging to, the suffering and joys of others. Equanimity is an even, firm, balanced attitude toward whatever occurs, especially in situations where we cannot help others or ourselves. Theravada Buddhists commonly use these attitudes as guides for how to best live in relation to others.


Once the foundations of generosity and ethics are established, the gradual training continues with the cultivation of meditation practices. Theravada Buddhism has a large repertoire of these, including many forms of formal sitting and walking meditation practices, as well as the development of awareness in daily activities. Meditation practices are usually divided into two categories: concentration and mindfulness.

Concentration practices emphasize the development of a stable, one-pointed, fixed focus of mind on such objects as the breath, a mantra, a visual image, or a theme like loving-kindness. States of strong concentration tend to bring about temporary but often helpful states of psychological wholeness and well- being. Loving-kindness (metta in Pali) is a particularly useful theme for concentration because it is the traditional antidote to all forms of aversion and self-criticism. In addition, it helps cultivate an attitude of friendliness that can support other awareness practices. Mindfulness is the cultivation of an undistracted awareness of the unfolding of events in the present moment. In both concentration and mindfulness practices, alert awareness is stabilized in the present. With concentration practice, awareness is channeled into a controlled focus on a single object to the exclusion of all else. In contrast, mindfulness develops an inclusive, at times even choiceless awareness, noticing whatever arises predominantly in our experience. It is an accepting awareness that clarifies our feelings, thoughts, motivations, attitudes, and ways of reacting. Such awareness in turn helps us to develop compassion and equanimity, both of which support liberation.

By far the most common form of Theravada meditation practice taught in America today is mindfulness practice. In particular, it is a form of mindfulness derived from the teachings of the Buddha preserved in a scripture called The Sutta on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The four foundations-the body (which includes the breath), feelings, mental states, and dhammas-(Sanskrit dharmas, the psychological processes and insights that relate to the cultivation of liberated awareness)-are the four areas of experience in which mindfulness is developed.

Insight and Liberation

With the foundations of sila and samadhi, wisdom, or pañña, starts to grow. The key Theravada Buddhist practice leading to both insight and liberation is mindfulness, sometimes supported by concentration exercises. Mindfulness develops the ground of trust and acceptance that enables us to open to whatever our inner and outer life might bring. While this often includes a great deal of self-knowledge, this trustful openness or non-resistance is itself the door to liberation, known in Theravada Buddhism as the cessation of all clinging. Part of the beauty of mindfulness is that each clear moment of mindfulness is itself a moment of non-clinging, and as such, is a taste of liberation.

As mindfulness becomes stronger, it directly reveals three insights that the Buddha called the three characteristics of all experience, namely that our experience is seen as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self.

All things are impermanent, including the way we experience ourselves and the world. Since our experiences are ever-changing, they are inherently unsatisfactory as sources of permanent security or identity. As we see that they cannot provide us with lasting satisfaction, we also realize that anything we experience does not belong to some fixed, autonomous notion of a “self “-not our thoughts, feelings or body, not even awareness itself.

Sometimes these insights trigger fear, but as our mindfulness practices mature, we realize that we can function happily in the world without needing to cling or attach to anything. So the basic insights arising out of mindfulness practice help us to cultivate trust and a healthy equanimity in the midst of our lives. As this trust grows, it weakens our need to cling. Eventually, the deepest roots of clinging-greed, hatred and delusion-release themselves and the world of liberation opens.

The fruit of this liberation is, in a sense, being in a world on to which we no longer project our clingings, fears, longings and aversions. It is to see the world of “things as they are.” If the release of clinging is strong enough, we realize the direct and immediate presence of the “Deathless,” a word Theravada Buddhism uses to refer to the ever-present, timeless experience of liberation.


In a sense the gradual path of training ends with liberation. Liberation is the door from which compassion and wisdom flow forth without selfish clinging or identification. If our compassion has not grown, then our training is incomplete. For some, the by- product of liberation and compassion is the wish to be of service to others. This can take any one of innumerable active forms, such as aiding a neighbor in difficulty, choosing to work in a helping profession, or teaching the Dharma. Before sending his first sixty enlightened disciples out into the world to teach the Dharma, the Buddha said to them,

My friends, I am free from all human and spiritual entanglements. And as you are likewise free of all human and spiritual entanglements, go forth into the world for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, with compassion for the world, and for the benefit, the blessing, and the happiness of gods and humans. Reveal the spiritual life, complete and pure in spirit and in form.


The desire to be of service can also take more passive expressions, such as living simply as a monk or nun, as an example of a life of practice. By itself, the act of Awakening is a great gift, a great act of service, because others will never again be subjected to the greed, hatred and delusion of an Awakened one. Rather they will benefit from the radiance, example and wisdom of someone set free. The gift of Awakening can be seen as bringing the spiritual path full circle, with generosity found at both the beginning and ending of the path.


A key element at every stage of the path is faith, a word that is often troublesome for Westerners. In Theravada Buddhism, faith does not mean blind belief. Rather, it describes trust or confidence in oneself, in the teachings and practices of liberation, and in the community of teachers and practitioners, both past and present. It is the kind of faith that inspires one to verify for oneself the experiential possibilities of a spiritual life.

As these possibilities become actualized, we often discover increasing levels of trust in our personal capacity for openness and wisdom. This in turn gives rise to an increasing appreciation of the people and teachings supporting this inner trust. In the Theravada tradition, these are represented by the Three Treasures: the Buddha; the Dharma, or teachings; and the Sangha, or the community of practitioners.

One of the most common rituals for lay practitioners in Theravada Buddhism is “Taking Refuge,” consciously choosing to be supported and inspired by the Three Treasures. While “Taking Refuge” is performed as a matter of course at ceremonies, during retreats, and when visiting a temple, it can be a pivotal moment when, for the first time, one takes refuge with the conscious intent of orienting one’s life in accordance with one’s deepest values and aspirations. Relating our practice to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha helps ensure that it is not limited only to intellectual concerns, issues of personal therapy, or even to selfish ambitions. Taking refuge helps solidify a broad foundation of trust and respect from which true mindfulness and insight can grow.

Theravada Buddhism in Daily Life

Theravada Buddhism distinguishes between the path of liberation and the path of worldly well-being. This corresponds loosely to the Western distinction between spiritual and secular concerns. The Pali words for these two are literally the ultimate path (lokuttara-magga) and the mundane or worldly path (lokiya-magga). No absolute separation exists, and teachers vary in the degree of distinction or non-distinction they see between them. Even when a strong distinction is upheld, the spiritual and the secular paths are seen as being mutually supportive of each other. The path of liberation is concerned with selflessness and nibbana, which in and of itself does not belong to the conventions, contents or conditions of the world. The path of worldly well- being is concerned with how to engage with these conventions and conditions so as to create as much personal, familial, social, economic and political health as possible.

Traditionally, Vipassana meditation belongs to the path of liberation. This has meant that many of those westerners who have devoted themselves to this practice both in Asia and in America have not learned much about the Theravada teachings and practices for worldly well-being. To appreciate the tradition in its full religious vitality, however, it is necessary to study both paths. This is particularly so for those who have a passion for integrating their Vipassana practice into their daily lives.

In a number of suttas popular in Southeast Asia, the Buddha speaks about how to live well in the world. The Sigalaka Sutta addresses the responsibilities of our social and familial roles- parent, child, spouse, teacher, student, friend, employer, employee, monastic and lay. One of the sutta’s beautiful and challenging teachings is on earning a livelihood without creating any harm in the process:

The wise who are trained and disciplined
Shine out like beacon lights.
They earn money just as a bee gathers honey
Without harming the flower,
And they let it grow as an anthill slowly gains in height.
With wealth wisely gained
They use it for the benefit of all.

Through the centuries, Theravada Buddhism has had much to say about politics. Many Southeast Asian kings have tried to live up to the list of ten virtues and duties for political leaders enumerated by the tradition: generosity, ethical conduct, self-sacrifice, honesty, gentleness, loving-kindness, non-anger, non-violence, patience, and conformity to the Dhamma. While those who strictly pursue the path of liberation have at times held themselves apart from worldly affairs, Theravada Buddhism as a full religious tradition has been very much engaged with political and social issues: with education, health, public works and more recently with environmental protection.

To help build healthy community, the tradition has festivals and ceremonies. It performs a range of rites of passage marking major transitions in a person’s life. Although monks do not officiate in all of these, Theravada communities have rituals, practices and celebrations for birth, marriage, death, and even a ceremony of elderhood at a person’s sixtieth birthday.

Students and Teachers

Theravada Buddhism teaches that friendship is an invaluable support for the spiritual life. In particular, spiritual friendships among practitioners, and between practitioners and their teachers are encouraged. Indeed, a common title for a teacher is kalyana-mitta or “good spiritual friend.” Although teachers may give instruction, reveal delusions and attachments, open new understandings and perspectives, and provide encouragement and inspiration, their role is always limited, since we must each walk the spiritual path for ourselves. A teacher is specifically not someone to whom students renounce their own common sense or personal responsibility. Nor is it generally expected that students will devote themselves exclusively to one teacher. Practitioners commonly spend time with a variety of teachers, benefiting from each teacher’s particular strengths.


A cornerstone of the Theravada tradition is the monastic community of monks and nuns. For much of the last two thousand years they have been the primary preservers of the Buddhist teachings and the exemplars of a life dedicated to liberation. Monasticism is often considered an ideal lifestyle for study, practice, service, and the purification of the heart. While not meant to be ascetic, the monastic life is designed to be simple, with minimal personal possessions and entanglements. As such it provides an important example of simplicity, non-possessiveness, non-harming, virtue, humility, and how to be content with little.

Not permitted to buy, cook or store their own food, Theravada monastics depend on the daily alms donations of the laity. They are thus not able to live independent of society, but must live in continual relationship to those who support them. Often this is a reciprocal relationship, with the laity supporting the monastics, and the monastics providing teaching, guidance and inspiration for the laity.


The most popular Theravada practice in America today is mindfulness. It was introduced by young Americans who had studied in Southeast Asia, and is one of the few Asian Buddhist meditation practices popularized by Americans rather than Asian teachers. Teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg (founders of IMS) streamlined the practice in order to offer an easily accessible, simple, but profound practice freed from much of its Theravada Buddhist context. As Jack Kornfield has said, “We wanted to offer the powerful practices of insight meditation, as many of our teachers did, as simply as possible without the complications of rituals, robes, chanting, and the whole religious tradition.”

One of the important forms of Vipassana practice has been intensive meditation retreats, lasting from one day to three months. Retreats are usually conducted in silence except for instructions, interviews with the teachers, and a daily discourse or “Dharma talk” given by a teacher. A typical day begins around 5:30 a.m. and ends around 9:30 p.m. A simple daily schedule of alternating sitting and walking meditation, and including a period of work meditation, encourages the cultivation of mindfulness throughout the day.

Though American Vipassana students are overwhelmingly lay people, these retreats allow them to practice with the support, simplicity and focus that is usually associated with monastic life. In a sense, these retreats offer the benefits of temporary monasticism. Intensive retreat practice alternating with periods of living the practice in the world is characteristic of the American Vipassana movement.

Perhaps in our own lay Western way, the simplicity of retreats corresponds to the life of the Theravada forest monks who historically were often those who devoted themselves to meditation practice. Such simplicity not only supports the cultivation of intimate mindfulness, it also facilitates the discovery of the simplicity of freedom itself.